From a journalist, healthcare worker, and converted Catholic, a fascinating overview of the garb worn by consecrated Catholic women, with brief histories of the respective orders.
“The habit . . . is a creative and imaginative clothing carefully constructed to impart meanings to its observers,” writes Kuhns, who then considers exactly what those meanings are: Does the habit suppress the individual or erase class distinctions, strip or bestow power, oppress or dignify? However the observer judges, there’s little doubt that this metaphor of the Catholic faith has become a universal cultural icon. It may have originated in the earliest ascetic impulses, suggests Kuhns, later to evolve into a wearable sacramental with unique symbolism: blue for the Immaculate Virgin, black for the abandonment of vanities, red for the Precious Blood, having seven buttons for the seven last words. The habit, clearly, distinguished the wearer as one who had taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and as such it was certainly more steadfast a symbol than the pomp of cardinals and popes. Yet as symbol, Kuhns writes, it was variously interpreted, from the humble cloth of a Poor Clare or a Chartreuse to the lavish colors and materials advanced by Hildegard of Bilgen, “reasoning that Christ should be presented with as much beauty as they could offer.” Kuhns embeds into her narrative the way these orders—Gilbertines, Carmelites, Benedictines, Cistercians, and on and on—were attractive for offering women not withdrawal but opportunity: in education and health care, for example, allowing them acts of free will and transformation that have prompted both admiration and disrespect, depending upon the cultural and political climate. The nuns might be praised as heroic “caregivers who responded to the needs of the marginalized in every strata of contemporary society,” for instance, then find themselves scorned if Catholicism happened to be out of synch with prevailing political winds.
A revelatory work that “opens the nun’s closet doors for the first time,” then scans the contents for all their historical and symbolic associations. (Photographs)